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Darwinism and New England Theology

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Until the nineteenth century, the Bible and science were thought to be two chapters of the same book, two pillars supporting the same truth, the latter the foundation of the former. The Bible was always considered as the authority, over and above science, never erring in all it affirmed. As Hannah says, “Clergyman and educators in the previous century generally viewed the Scriptures and scientific theory to be harmonious volumes in the revelation of God.”1 But, with the advent of Charles Darwin and Darwinism all that changed. As Hannah has further observed,

Before the publication of Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the marriage of theology and science appeared as sacred and, hence, an inviolable institution.... The publication of Darwin’s Origin became the occasion whereby science sought, as Loewenberg has asserted, to be ‘freed from centuries of bondage to metaphysics and theology’.... As Hofstadter stated: ‘Religion has been forced to share it’s traditional authority with science, and American thought has been secularized..., evolution has been translated into divine purpose, and in the hands of skillful preachers religion enlivened and refreshed by the infusion of an authoritative idea from the field of science.’2

If Hofstadter’s conclusions even approach the facts of history, there can be no doubt that Charles Darwin and his ideas concerning the mechanics of evolution made a significant impact upon New England theology in the nineteenth century. The purpose of the rest of this paper is to seek to understand how Darwinism entered Congregational, New England theology and what effect it had upon theology and the interpretation of the Bible at that time. First, Darwinism will be defined. Second, having defined Darwinism and stated it’s main premises or tenets, this paper will seek to show how those tenets, once being rejected virtually wholesale, came to be embraced by scholars: religious and scientific. Third, and finally, having established what Darwinism is, and how it’s main tenets were eventually embraced by the academic community, we will turn our attention to the question of how Darwinism entered conservative New England theology and what the subsequent affect was upon Biblical/theological interpretation.

A Definition of Darwinism

Evolution may be defined generally as an “origination of species by development from earlier forms, not by special creation”3 or, in other words, “the development of the more complex forms of life from the simpler.”4 It is important to point out, at the outset, that in contrast to what many believe, Darwin was not the founder of the idea of “evolution.”5

No matter how much Darwin may have contributed, he did not originate the theory of evolution.... As far as we can determine, the concept of evolution had it’s beginnings about 700 B. C. in Ionia, Greece. Since that time a good many scientists, philosophers and theologians have discussed, theorized and written on the subject.6

Evolution, then, is this change from one life form (more primitive) to another life form (more complex). How does this happen? Or as Wyong has said, “A prerequisite to change in organisms is a mechanism to produce that change.”7 The question then is, “By what mechanism then, are species able to undergo change so as to result in new, different species?” The answer to that question is the point at which Darwin enters into the picture.

There were several theories advanced before Darwin claimed to have the answer. One theory, “acquired characteristics,” was advanced by the frenchman, Jean de Lamarck (1744-1829). He claimed that the modus operandi for evolution was the environment and individual need. “Lamarck’s contention was that changes forced upon the parents by environmental pressures would be inherited by the offspring.”8 However, Lamarck’s theories found no ready takers in the scientific community. He was heavily criticized by Cuvier and Charles Lyell.9

E. Jeoffery Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844), a contemporary of Lamarck, advanced another theory wherein he stated that “sudden changes or saltations in organisms”10 could produce new species. His idea was a forerunner to the mutation theory as understood and embraced by De Vries.

Still another major player in the development of the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century was an English philosopher by the name of Herbert Spencer. He had developed a fully orbed theory of evolution which was rejected by his contemporaries. When Darwin came along Spencer attached himself to him and was recognized as the first person to use the phrase, “survival of the fittest.”11

We also know that Thomas Malphus (An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798) exercised a great deal of influence upon Darwin and his thinking. And Chamber’s work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1843-46) influenced Darwin as well.12 In the Vestiges Chambers had made the claim that “mankind had emerged from the lower animals” but he had no mechanism to prove that it was so.13 Darwin, in contrast to Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire, Spencer et. al. on the other hand, had an answer.

Theory of the
Mechanics of Evolution

Now that we see the rich context in which Darwin was thinking let us turn to his theory of the mechanics of evolution. First, it is clear that Darwin, at least in the beginning of his career, when he wrote the Origin, was not an atheist. He simply believed his model of evolution explained how God brought about new life forms. As Eiseley has said,

Both (referring to Lamarck and Darwin) acknowledge a Creator, a Divine Author of all things, but both contend that the appearance of life on the planet, and it’s subsequent enormous radiation into divergent life forms, is the product of secondary law as unswerving as that which the astronomer reads in the heavens. God, in other words, has not personally superintended the emergence of every species of gnat, mole and cricket. Instead these have come about through the working out of natural forces....14

Darwin proposed a theory called “natural selection” as the driving force behind the evolutionary process. “According to Darwin, species will vary, with favorable variations being perpetuated and unfavorable variations disappearing with the individuals in which they were produced.”15

The essence of natural selection is Darwin’s suggestion that evolution is guided solely by the interaction between the population and it’s environment. The members of a population differ among themselves in a host of minor ways....Selection involves the preferential survival and reproduction of those individuals which by chance have inherited a variation that gives them an edge over their neighbors in coping with the local environment.16

In order for Darwin’s theory (also referred to as Darwinian developmentalism)17 to be correct there are at least 3 criteria that must be met: 1) unlimited time; 2) uniformitarianism and 3) mutability of the species; that is, one species can become another, totally new and different species, in the evolutionary process. All three of these were denied by the scientific community at the time and radically opposed by the religious community. The question then is what happened in these two communities that paved the road for the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theories. This is the subject of the next section.

The Criteria of
Darwinian Evolution Are Met

During the early nineteenth century, the church, due to the work of men such as Ussher and Cuvier, believed in a relatively young earth, perhaps 4-6000 years old. However, as long as religious scholars continued to embrace the young earth theory, Darwin’s theories, which required that the earth be millions, if not billions of years old, would never be accepted.

Up until the time of Darwin the dominant geological view as held by both the scientific as well as religious community was known as catastrophism. The basic idea in this doctrine is the belief that the earth has undergone a number of great cataclysms , between which God did His creating of the various species. The fossil record, with species found at various levels in the earth’s strata (indicating different periods of existence and death at the time of a cataclysm) seemed to point to this end. Of course it was further believed because no evolutionist had sufficiently refuted this interpretation of the geological data in their attempts to advance their theories.

It wasn’t until the work of Charles Lyell (1797-1895) that all that changed. His book entitled, Principles of Geology...”was destined to destroy the reigning geological doctrine and introduce unlimited time and the play of natural forces once more into geology.”18 Natural forces may be interpreted here to mean uniformitarianism--another major tenet of Darwinism. As Barbour has observed,

As early as 1795 James Hutton had defended the opposing “uniformitarian” view, which assumed the operation of natural causes such as vulcanism, sedimentation, and erosion through great spans of time; Lyell carried uniformitarianism much further, and gave for a wide variety of geological phenomena the first detailed and systematic explanation which assumed that regular laws “within the existing order of nature” had acted throughout the past. Lyell’s portrayal of the long, slow working of natural processes was acknowledged by Darwin as a formative influence on his own thought.19

Thus it can be seen that Lyell’s work provided the basis for the acceptance of two of Darwin’s tenets: 1) unlimited time and 2) uniformitarianism. However, the mutability of the species (or transmutation) was not answered by Lyell’s work. He simply provided the time necessary for such a process to take place.

Linnaeus, a century before, had worked out an elaborate scheme demonstrating the fixity of the species. This continued to enable the scientific community, as well as the religious community, to hold to some form of special creation.

However, Buffon softened the work of Linnaeus et al. somewhat, when he explained the survival of one species over another as a “struggle to survive.” Lamarck, as was discussed, suggested inherent characteristics as the driving force that selected some species and not others for survival and subsequent propagation. This further weakened the fixity of the species. Darwin, of course, dealt the death blow to the notion of the fixity of the species. Natural selection, he claimed, is the “way” in which evolution takes place. It is the driving force in the mutability of the species. The ideas found in Darwin’s natural selection can be seen in Lamarck and Buffon: 1) random variations (Buffon); 2) struggle for survival and 3) survival of the fittest. Although Darwin did not apply his evolutionary theory to man in the Origin, he did twelve years later in The Descent of Man (1871).20

By way of summary, it is correct to say, that at the turn of the nineteenth century, the religious community accepted the “truths” that the earth was only a few thousand years old (limited time), that catastrophism was geologically accurate (not uniformitarianism), the fixity of the species (not mutability) and that the creation of man was instant, directly from the hand of God (not a developed creature from lower life forms). By the end of the century that had changed. The remaining question then, is “How did Darwin’s theories (and the premises upon which they are built) enter New England theology?” This is the subject of the final section of the paper.

The Entrance of
Darwinism into New England Theology

The purpose of this section is to demonstrate the entrance of Darwinian theory (ultimately developmentalism and the origin of man) into New England theology. It will be shown that the clergy of that time period readily accepted the theories of unlimited time and uniformitarianism and therefore, shifted their interpretation of Genesis 1, 2 in order to align themselves with the new geology. The acceptance of Darwinian Developmentalism, on the other hand, met with much greater resistance. It was not until the work of Frederick Wright and Asa Gray that Developmentalism was considered plausible by New England theologians.21

The church had held to the “young earth” theory until the time of Charles Lyell. Lyell’s work convincingly demonstrated (at least to the thinkers of that time) that the earth had been in existence for an unlimited period of time (i.e. so long it could not be accurately measured) and that natural processes, uniformly applied over the length of that existence, could account for what men saw and studied in creation. Thus it became the work of the theologian to harmonize the Biblical account in Genesis (and the so-called “young earth” theory) with the “new geology.”

One such scholar, John O. Mears postulated at least three possible theories to harmonize Genesis with the findings of geology: “a Gap Theory in Genesis 1 of indefinite time followed by a divine creation (or re-formation) in six twenty-four hour consecutive periods, a Day-Age-Day Theory of indefinite periods between twenty-four hour creative periods, and a Day-Age Theory of indefinite periods. He opted for the third view, thus conceding an important bulwark of traditional religion, limited time.”22 Even James Dwight Dana (holder of the Sillimen Professorship at Yale [1856]), who always opposed a purely materialistic Developmentalism,23 agreed that geology and the scriptural record must be harmonized in the fashion after Mears.24 As Hannah observes, “Scientific theory was clearly beginning to shape the interpretation of Scripture among the New England Clergy.”25 And with the impetus afforded by the thoughts of Benjamen Silliman of Yale College (a training center for New School Presbyterianism), the clergy of New England readily accepted this re-interpretation of Genesis 1 to conform with science.26 With Genesis 1 re-interpreted in the light of the “new geology” the stage was set for the struggle which led to the acceptance of Developmentalism (based upon Darwinian natural selection) in New England theolgy.

In order to understand how Developmentalism (the belief that lower life forms result in higher life forms through evolutionary processes) found root among conservative theologians of the nineteenth century we turn first to the debate and struggle between a professor of Greek at Union College, Taylor Lewis,27 and James Dana, a Yale trained scientist. Lewis published a book entitled, The Six Days of Creation in 1855, to which Dana responded by writing four articles in Bibliotheca Sacra in which he tried to defend the position that Developmentalism of any sort (Lewis’ or anybody else’s) was untenable in light of geological, zoological and Biblical data. Lewis felt it quite plausible that “the human body might have been a growth through natural laws and processes originated by God and quickened by him to higher developments.”28 Dana reacted vigorously to Lewis’ ideas claiming them to be absurd and false philosophically, to say the least. The reaction of New England Congregationalism (as evidenced in the Bibliotheca Sacra journal),29 subsequent to the Lewis/Dana debate, followed in a similar vein. Hannah summarizes well the response of New England theologians up until the1870’s as follows:

... the response of Bibliotheca Sacra (and thus N.E. theology) from the inception of the developmentalist debate with the reaction to Chambers’ publication of the Vestiges, Dana’s response to Lewis’ Six Days of Creation, and the later response in the early 1870’s as the issue focused forcibly in the thought of Darwin, was one of rejection and hostility. Developmentalism was not only viewed as a threat to religion, but a denial of transcendence; it was viewed as a travesty of not only sound reason, but a violation of the facts of science.30

Thus it remained for some other conservative theologians to emerge, who would grant the probability (i.e through scientific and Biblical data) to Developmentalism that it needed in order to gain a foothold in New England theology. Some theologians needed to come forth who could articulate a palatable form of Developmentalism without either destroying the argument from design or deprecating man. Such was the work of two men, namely, Frederick Wright (1838-1921), a new school Presbyterian clergyman31 and Asa Gray (1810-1888), a Harvard botanist and theist.32 They became, as Livingstone has suggested,33 an “evangelical alliance” in the propagation of Developmentalism among religious scholars.

These men tried to show that Darwinian Developmentalism (which requires the mutability of the species) was not incompatible with New England theology. And when all was said and done it might be said that they in fact succeeded, as far as their generation was concerned. Wright, as the editor of Bibliotheca Sacra at the time wrote a number of articles attempting to show the harmonious relationship between New England Calvinism and Developmentalism. According to Hannah,34 Wright argued that the solidarity of human race (a Calvinistic notion) is affirmed in Developmentalism, that Lamarck’s “acquired characteristics” and Darwin’s natural selection are both God-ordained means to produce the beneficial mutations resulting in divergent life forms. Thus the whole process finds it’s basis in God as the master Designer. Wright also compared the mystery in Calvinism (i.e. foreordination and free will) with the mystery in the forces that operate in Developmentalism. Apparently He was attempting to help others understand, that as they accepted the mystery in theology (and did not toss it out simply because they were not able to understand it all), they should also accept it in Darwinism (and not discard it needlessly). When Gray and Wright were done arguing for a Darwinian explanation of creation (that is, with respect to secondary causes) it could be said (as Wright himself said) that “‘Darwinism [had] been styled the Calvinistic interpretation of nature.’“35 Thus, Darwinism had made it’s way into nineteenth century, conservative theology.


The purpose of the paper was to show how Darwinism entered into nineteenth century conservative theology and what affect it had. In order to accomplish this we defined Darwinism first. We said it was the specific mechanism (i.e. natural selection) by which evolutionary processes were carried forth from one generation to the next. Next we demonstrated how three premises essential to Darwinism, namely, unlimited time, uniformitarianism and mutability of the species, came to be accepted by scholars. Finally we showed how the religious community, though radically opposed to Darwinian Developmentalism at first (i.e. Dana) in the end came to accept and embrace it (through the work of Wright and Gray) as an acceptable (that is, consistent with New England Calvinism) means of Divine creation of new species, including man.

Thus it can be seen from the paper that Darwinian notions affected Biblical interpretation, in terms of the Genesis 1 time frame for creation, as well as the creation of man; as instant and directly from the hand of God. Subsequently it was acceptable to see man as descended from a lower life form with God intervening at some point to infuse life in him.


Barbour, Ian G. Issues in Science and Religion. New York: Harper & Row, Ltd. 1966.

Bowler, Peter J. Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990.

Clark, Robert E. D. Darwin: Before and After. An Examination and Assessment. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Grand Rapids International Publication, 1958.

Eiseley, Loren C. Darwin’s Century. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958.

Haber, Francis C. The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959.

Hannah, John D. “Bibliotheca Sacra and Darwinism: An Analysis the Nineteenth-Century Conflict Between Science and Theology.” Grace Theological Journal 4.1 (1983): 37-58.

Hayward, Alan. Creation and Evolution: The Facts and Fallacies. London: Triangle, 1985.

Lewis, Taylor. “Letter.” Bibliotheca Sacra 13 (1856).

Livingstone, David N. Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.

Pfeifer, Edward Justin. “The Reception of Darwinism in the United States, 1859-1880.” PhD. Diss., Dept. of American Civilization, Brown University, 1958.

Smith, Charles R. “Is There a Gap Between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2?” ThM. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1966.

___________, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1959 ed. S.v. “Evolution.”

Wilson, David B, ed. Did the Devil Make Darwin Do It? Modern Perspectives on the Creation-Evolution Debate. Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1983.

Wysong, R. L. The Creation-Evolution Debate: Toward a Rational Solution. Lansing, Michigan: Inquiry Press, 1976.

Zimmerman, Paul A, ed. Darwin, Evolution, and Creation. Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.

1 John D. Hannah, “Bibliotheca Sacra and Darwinism: An Analysis of the Nineteenth-Century Conflict Between Science and Religion,” Grace Theological Journal 4.1 (1983) 37.

2 Ibid, p. 37, 38.

3 The Concise Oxford Dictionary 4th ed. Ed H.W. Fowler and F. G Fowler (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

4 Wilbert H. Rusch, “Darwinism, Science, and the Bible,” in Darwin, Evolution and Creation, (St. Louis MO.: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), p.12.

5 Edward Justin Pfeifer, “The Reception of Darwinism in the United States, 1859-1880.” (Ph D. diss. Brown University, 1958) p.1.

6 Ibid., p. 5. See also Robert E. D. Clark, Darwin: Before and After (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Grand Rapids International Publications, 1958), pp. 7-11. R. L. Wysong, The Creation-Evolution Controversy (Michigan: Inquiry Press, 1976), p.55.

7 R. L. Wysong, The Creation-Evolution Controversy (Michigan: Inquiry Press, 1976), p.265.

8 Ibid., p.265. Darwin was a disciple of Lamarck at one time.

9 Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin:The Man and His Influence (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990), p.18. cf. also Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century (New York: Anchor Books, 1958), p.193.

10 Wilbert H. Rusch, “Darwinism, Science, and the Bible,” in Darwin, Evolution and Creation, (St. Louis MO.: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 17.

11 Ibid, p.17

12 Ibid., p.19.

13 Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin:The Man and His Influence (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990), p.18, 19.

14 Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century (New York: Anchor Books, 1958), p.193.

15 Wilbert H. Rusch, “Darwinism, Science, and the Bible,” in Darwin, Evolution and Creation, (St. Louis MO.: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 19.

16 Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin:The Man and His Influence (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990), p. 12.

17 John D. Hannah, “Bibliotheca Sacra and Darwinism: An Analysis of the Nineteenth-Century Conflict Between Science and Religion,” Grace Theological Journal 4.1 (1983) 37.

18 Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century (New York: Anchor Books, 1958), p.98.

19 Ian G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966), p. 82.

20 Ibid, p. 86

21 Much of the material in this section comes from John D. Hannah’s analysis of the question. The section is an attempt to summarize his work as well as integrate the thoughts of others. cf. John D. Hannah, “Bibliotheca Sacra and Darwinism: An Analysis of the Nineteenth-Century Conflict Between Science and Religion,” Grace Theological Journal 4.1 (1983), pp. 41-58.

22 John D. Hannah, “Bibliotheca Sacra and Darwinism: An Analysis of the Nineteenth-Century Conflict Between Science and Religion,” Grace Theological Journal 4.1 (1983), p. 42.

23 According to Hannah (p. 57), Dana came to embrace darwinian evolution, but with the quickening work of God in relation to man.

24 David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Michigan: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 71, 72.

25 John D. Hannah, “BSac and Darwinism” Grace (1983) 43.

26 Ibid., p. 43.

27 David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders , p. 71.

28 Taylor Lewis, Letter, BSac 13 (1856) 471.

29 David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders , p. 71. He refers to BSac as “the main organ of Congregationalist Evangelicalism.”

30 John D. Hannah, “BSac and Darwinism” Grace (1983) 47.

31 David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders , p. 64.

32 Francis C. Haber, The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959), pp. 2, 287.

33 David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders , p. 65. Livingstone suggests Dana as the third member of the alliance, p. 70.

34 John D. Hannah, “BSac and Darwinism” Grace (1983), pp.51-53..

35 Ibid., p. 53.

Related Topics: Theology, Creation

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